Centuries Old Controversy Over Women Preachers is Reignited in the Southern Baptist Convention

Members sing along to a song at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting on June 14, 2017, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Article by Susan M. Shaw. Susan M. Shaw is a professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies atOregon State University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.

Southern Baptists are arguing again over the role women should play in the church.

Following a tweet from popular Southern Baptist speaker, teacher and writer Beth Moore that suggested she was preaching at a Southern Baptist church, many Baptist leaders accused her of defying God’s word.

These Baptist leaders believe women cannot hold positions of authority over men and that means they shouldn’t preach, teach men, or serve as pastor. The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary went so far as to say, “I think there’s just something about the order of creation that means that God intends for the preaching voice to be a male voice.”

Beth Moore is theologically conservative and doesn’t believe women should be pastors. But her recent tweet renewed a debate that’s been an issue for more than 300 years.

The issue of women’s leadership has raged among Baptists since the beginning of the denomination in 17th century England.

Women preachers among early Baptists

As a researcher who studies Baptist women and was also ordained by Shalom Baptist Church in Louisville in 1993, I’m deeply familiar with this history.

Only a few years after Baptists arose in England, women began teaching and preaching, particularly in London.

Baptists believe God speaks directly to each individual, and, each person’s conscience, under God’s guidance, directs their belief and behavior.

Baptists also believe that each individual church is autonomous and should make its own decisions rather than relying on the authority of a bishop or pope. These core Baptist convictions led to great disagreements.

Early Baptists disagreed over, for example, whether salvation was available to everyone or only to those whom God had predestined. They even disagreed over whether or not hymn-singing was appropriate.

And, from the beginning, Baptists also disagreed on women preaching. Some congregations allowed it while others did not.

Even women who preached were not ordained. As Baptists set up processes for how churches would administer themselves, they limited ordination to men.

But some of the women justified their preaching by hearkening back to biblical times. They gave examples of the leadership of women such as Miriam, sister of Moses, who was a prophetess. They quoted an 11-century B.C. prophetess Deborah, who was a judge of the Israelites. Based on Baptist beliefs, they claimed a calling from a higher authority than church or government.

Church authorities, however, criticized and dismissed these women.

One of these women, Anne Wentworth, who was active in preaching, wrote in 1679,

“I am reproached as a proud, wicked, deceived, deluded, lying Woman; a mad, melancholy, crackbrained, self willed, conceited Fool, and black Sinner, led by whimsies, notions, and knif-knafs of my own head.”

A few Baptist churches in England permitted women to declare their commitment to Christ publicly or tell a public story of God’s work in their lives, even when they did not allow then to preach. Other churches forbade women from speaking in church at all.

Baptist women preaching in the U.S.

In the United States, the first Baptist church was founded in 1638 in Providence, Rhode Island by Roger Williams, a Puritan minister who converted to Baptist beliefs.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Baptist women continued to exercise leadership in Baptist churches in the U.S., although Baptists remained at odds over women preaching.

In the mid 18th century, two factions of Baptists emerged. One group was known as “Separate Baptists.” The group grew out of the Great Awakening, a series of revivals in the 1740s that emphasized religious feeling and zeal as important expressions of authentic faith. They “separated” from the more urban, conventional, and dispassionate “Regular” Baptists.

While Regular Baptists opposed women preaching, Separate Baptists offered greater opportunities for women. Separate Baptists accepted women as deaconesses and eldresses.

Shubal Stearns, a Congregational preacher and evangelist, became a Separate Baptist. His sister, Martha, and brother-in-law were also preachers, and together the three of them established the first Separate Baptist church in the South at Sandy Creek in 1755.

Martha Stearns Marshall soon became known for her ardent preaching. In 1810, Baptist historian Robert Semple noted about Martha’s preaching,

“Without the shadow of an usurped authority over the other sex, Mrs. Marshall, being a lady of good sense, singular piety, and surprising elocution has, in countless instances, melted a whole concourse into tears by her prayers and exhortations.”

Openness to women preaching was the exception, and women in preaching roles remained controversial.

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Source: Religion News Service